Wildfire Forecasters Race to Stay Ahead of Unpredictable Flames

By Brian K. Sullivan | November 6, 2019

Predicting what a wildfire will do is no simple matter.

When the Getty wildfire erupted in California a week ago, forcing 20,000 people to evacuate, Richard Thompson raced to the scene. His job wasn’t to fight a fire that spread to hundreds of acres in just hours. It was to keep firefighters safe from the whiplash vagaries of a turbulent, wind-driven blaze.

Thompson is one of 84 meteorologists sent out regularly by the National Weather Service to help protect emergency workers battling wildfires and other natural disasters. While most forecasters focus on predicting the weather days ahead, Thompson does it minute-by-minute using laptop images of the topography, on-site weather balloons and complex software that creates computer models from live radar sweeps and satellite images.

“It’s very stressful,” said Thompson, who is based in Oxnard, California and has now worked in more than 55 wildfires throughout the state. “But we know what our role is.”

This week, Thompson could be called on once again with dry winds forecast to start building late Thursday just north of Los Angeles, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center.

In 2013, a thunderstorm over a wildfire in Arizona abruptly changed the wind’s direction and speed, killing 19 firefighters that suddenly found themselves trapped. Thompson’s job is to provide information from the moment he gets on the scene that can be used to position and re-position fire crews as needed, plot flight paths for planes and helicopters and keep the public safe.

Predicting a wildfire’s path requires a wide variety of high-tech tools. Calculations have to determine atmospheric changes occurring hundreds of feet high and across patches of land that can be just 35-feet wide. And all of this must be accomplished every five to 10 minutes, said Lloyd Treinish, the leader of environmental sciences at IBM’s Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

At issue is a part of the atmosphere that meteorologists have labeled the boundary layer, which runs hundreds of feet into the air from the ground up. Canyons and mountains can channel the winds blasting flames across the countryside. The balloons, linked by radio, measure temperature, humidity and wind, and can help determine where the fire is burning hottest. The radar and satellite images, meanwhile, are used to track the fire’s progress as it expands.

“Computing power is critical” in tracking wildfires, IBM’s Treinish said. “Weather affects or drives a fire, and the fire changes the weather,” he said. “As you can imagine the physics is rather complex.”

How fires create weather is a factor the on-site forecasters are acutely aware of. As wildfires burn, the heat released causes an updraft that draws in winds. If the fire’s big enough, the rising air can create a billowing pyrocumulus, or fire cloud, that can stir dry lightning and even push more wind into the mix.

Through the end of October, 2019 hadn’t been a particularly active season for the on-site meteorologists, with 57 missions, said Larry Van Bussum, the weather service’s National Fire Weather Operations Coordinator stationed at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Until about 2000, the team was deployed to about 90 fires per year, he said. Until about 2000, Over thee last few years, there 140 to 150 fire per year, according to Van Bussum.

Responders like Thompson “are the last ones to bed, always looking for the latest data, one more piece of data, one more model run,” Van Bussum said. And when they do sleep “the phone is right next to their ear.”

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